BAGHDAD – In a neighborhood of Iraq’s capital, a gigantic poster of Vladimir Putin with the words, “We support Russia,” was up for few hours before a security force arrived and hurriedly took it down. Then came the security directive: All public displays of Putin’s pictures shall be banned.
In Lebanon, the powerful Hezbollah militia railed against the government’s condemnation of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, calling for neutrality.
Such wrangling shows the deep divisions over the Ukraine war in the Middle East, where Moscow has embedded itself as a key player in recent years, making powerful friends among state and non-state actors while America’s influence waned.
Political elites closely allied with the West are wary of alienating Russia or the U.S. and Europe. But other forces — from Shiite militia factions in Iraq, to Lebanon’s Hezbollah group and Houthi rebels in Yemen — vocally support Russia against Ukraine.
These groups are considered to be Iran’s boots on the ground in the so-called anti-U.S. “axis of resistance.” Putin won their backing largely because of his close ties with Tehran and his military intervention in Syria’s civil war in support of President Bashar Assad.
They see Putin as a steady, reliable partner who, unlike the Americans, does not drop his allies. In their circles, they even have an affectionate nickname for Putin — “Abu Ali” — which is a common name among Shiite Muslims and meant to portray a certain comaraderie.
Meanwhile, governments are walking a tightrope.
"Iraq is against the war but has not condemned it nor taken a side," said political analyst Ihsan Alshamary, who heads the Political Thought Think Tank in Baghdad. Iraq needs to remain neutral because it has shared interests with both Russia and the West, he said.
He said Iran's allies in the region are outspokenly with Russia “because they are anti-American and anti-West and believe that Russia is their ally.”
Russia has invested up to $14 billion in Iraq and the northern Kurdish-run region, mainly focusing on the energy sector, Moscow’s ambassador Elbrus Kutrashev told the Iraqi Kurdish news agency Rudaw in a recent interview.
Among the major oil companies operating in the country are Russia’s Lukoil, Gazprom Neft and Rosneft.
Iraq also maintains close ties with the U.S., but Western companies have steadily been plotting to exit from Iraq’s oil sector.
Iraq’s strongest move so far came after its central bank advised the prime minister against signing new contracts with Russian companies or payments in light of U.S. sanctions. The decision will impact new Russian investment in the country, but little else, Russian industry officials said.
Last week, Iraq was among the 35 countries that abstained from a U.N. General Assembly vote to demand that Russia stop its offensive and withdraw troops from Ukraine. Lebanon voted in favor, while Syria, where Russian ties run deep, voted against. Iran also abstained.
In Lebanon, an unusually blunt Foreign Ministry statement denouncing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine caused an uproar and upset the Russians, forcing the minister to clarify that Lebanon did not intend to take sides and would remain neutral.
“They distance themselves and claim neutrality where they want, and they interfere and condemn where they want,” Hezbollah lawmaker Ibrahim Moussawi wrote on Twitter, taking aim at the Foreign Ministry. “What foreign policy does Lebanon follow, and what is Lebanon’s interest in that? Please clarify for us, foreign minister.”
Hezbollah, which also sent thousands of fighters to neighboring Syria to shore up Assad’s forces, has seized on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to portray it as an inevitable result of U.S. provocations and yet another betrayal by the United States of its allies – in this case, Ukraine.
In Syria, where Russia maintains thousands of troops, billboards proclaiming, “Victory for Russia” popped up in areas of Damascus this week. In opposition-held areas, which still get hit by Russian airstrikes, residents hope pressure will ease on them if Russia gets bogged down in fighting in Ukraine.
In Iraq, the Ukraine war is highlighting divisions in an already fractured landscape during stalled efforts to form a new government, five months after parliament elections were held.
The huge billboard in support of Putin was briefly put up in a Baghdad neighborhood considered a stronghold of powerful Iranian-backed militias. After it was removed, the Russian Embassy in Baghdad tweeted an image of it.
“The poster was provocative, I am against it,” said Athir Ghorayeb, who works at a nearby coffee shop. Iraq is only just emerging from decades of war and conflict, he said. “Why do they insist on involving us in new problems?”
Many Iraqis see in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine echoes of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of neighboring Kuwait and subsequent years-long economic sanctions placed on Iraq. It was only a few days ago that Iraq finished paying reparations to Kuwait which totaled more than $52 billion.
On social media, Iraqi pages on Facebook with millions of followers have posted news of what is happening in Ukraine, sharing their views. “Our hearts are with the civilians, as those who have tasted war know its catastrophes,” posted one user, Zahra Obaidi.
“We have tents for refugees and internally displaced people, so you’re welcome to come use them,” Hafidh Salih posted.
Toby Dodge, a professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics, said Iraq’s moves — abstaining from the U.N. vote while limiting economic activity — were prudent, managing the short-term risks without taking an ideological stance.
But the longer the war drags on, the harder it will be to maintain this strategy.
“Iraq is deeply divided politically amongst players between pro-Iran and those that are anti-Iran trying to assert autonomy. The Ukraine becomes another performance, another example of where either side can burnish their credentials,” he said.
Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Samya Kullab in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.